• SUMMER 2008
What kind of response do you get when you say that to your Dharma students?
It’s a bit of a wake-up call to a lot of people.In the current Buddhist environmentin the West, in my opinion, there is a lot of clinging to rites and rituals—andrites and rituals here means meditativepractice, a particular style of
or whatever it might be. Thelack of the
dimension has left a lot of Western Buddhism ungrounded. Buddhistpractice has to do with the engagementwith ordinariness, not with some kind of transcendental, mystical state. It’s moreabout, “How can you go out and be kind, or just a little bit kinder, to the person you findreally irritating?”
What about the traditional two-part model wesometimes hear about: that the Buddha taughta low-grade morality to householders, “Obey ﬁve precepts and give generously to support themonks” so that they, in the monastery or onthe hill, can practice intensive mediation and reach for higher states of consciousness?
Well to begin with, I don’t think thefive precepts are particularly low-grade.The monastic disciplines, apart from therelevant changes made to account forcelibacy and things like that, are really justan extrapolation of the five precepts. Theprecepts are tools for investigating the wholeof our ethical lives, and for examining very carefully the subtleties of our consciousness.That’s why they are deliberately hazy.Take the first precept, for example: “Iundertake a rule of training to refrain fromharming living beings.” It obviously impliesnot killing, but in the Western Buddhistcontext most people are not going to bekilling deliberately. More deeply, it is saying,“You do a lot of harm, living in this world;look more closely at the other forms of harmyou do.” That might relate, for example, tospeech, or to taking what is not offered. Allof the precepts are inter-dependent. They areactually very high grade, if taken seriously. As another example, we might notice thatthe third precept is mistranslated most of the time. It’s not just about restraining frominappropriate
activity, but refers toall forms of sensual indulgence—which is a much more broad and sensitive area for usmodern lay Buddhists.One reason I found the Abhidhamma to be such a wonderful teaching is that itsprimary division is ethical: ethically variablefactors, neutral factors, and then you havethe
, the wholesomeand the unwholesome, dimensions of themind. It shows us how to practice in waysthat recognize and cultivate one set, whilerecognizing and eliminating the other.
One of the themes of your teaching issensitivity to the context of ancient India, and your understanding that the Buddha was really quite a radical.
Yes, because it makes us look at our ownculture. The Buddha’s engagement with hisown culture in fifth century India BCE istotal. He utilizes every tool, including thelanguage and the religious discourse of hisperiod, in order to subvert it. I find very few words in Pali which you cannot traceback to a Vedic context or to an Upanishadiccontext. He knew as much about themas the Indian pundits of the period didthemselves. He parodies things like the“Hymn of Creation” in the
, andoffers a brilliant send-up of the oldest of theUpanishads,
The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad
.Understanding these things helps us see histeaching more clearly.
So what was radical about the Buddha’steaching, beyond the sociology of it all?
In the West there is a lot of clinging to rites and rituals [in the form of] a particular style of meditation.